Three Thoughts on Silicon Valley's Latest Anti-Spying Position

Silicon Valley is continuing its campaign to distance itself from the National Security Agency’s snooping operations. On Monday, eight well-known Internet companies—Google, AOL, Apple, Facebook, LinkedIn, Microsoft, Twitter, and Yahoo!—published an open letter, took out ads in newspapers, and set up a website calling for new principles for what they’re deeming as global government surveillance reform. Here are three ways to think about it:

Silicon Valley is against spying at home. This is hardly the first time major tech companies have argued that they protect consumers against an overly curious government. Silicon Valley has been pushing for the right to release more details about the data that companies share with law enforcement, and working to build technical systems less vulnerable to snooping. There’s little new in Monday’s announcement. While the principles the group lays out don’t mention any government by name, the first three echo common suggestions to reel in the NSA by saying governments shouldn’t just suck up data, intelligence agencies should be overseen by the courts, and governments should be more open about what they’re doing.

It’s also worried about its business abroad. The other principles seem targeted to customers in other countries. Foreign governments, particularly in Europe, are furious about the NSA spying program. Silicon Valley is concerned that harsh privacy laws could seriously hamper its growth worldwide at a time when every major Internet company’s U.S. growth is slowing. Laws that would require information about local users to be kept on local servers, for instance, would cause serious issues for American Internet companies. In making these suggestions, of course, the companies are in the awkward position of arguing against legislation intended to protect privacy.

Not the phone companies, though. Internet companies have loudly protested what they see as government invasion of their users’ privacy. But wireless carriers—who have been repeatedly implicated in connection with such efforts—have largely kept quiet. The two branches of the consumer tech industry are in different situations. While it’s rare to see Facebook described as a utility, consumers have a much greater connection with that company than they do their phone carriers. And while the domination of the leading tech companies seems absolute, the telecom industry is arguably the gold standard for draining competition from a market. Silicon Valley has been very sensitive to accusations of misuse of personal data because most tech companies rely on that same data to make their living.

“People won’t use technology they don’t trust,” Brad Smith, general counsel of Microsoft, said in a statement. Apparently Internet companies are more concerned about that than phone companies are.

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